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Dove Arising (Dove Chronicles) by Karen Bao
Review by Ernest Lilley
Viking Books for Young Readers Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0451469011
Date: 24 February 2015 List Price $17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Karen Bao has managed to mix dystopian society with the boot camp experience in a coming of age novel set in a struggling lunar colony ruled over by a group of scientists who’ve clearly been at it too long.

When Phaet Theta's mother is taken away for the dual offenses of sickness and sedition, Phaet and her brother and sister face being forced out of their apartment and into the public shelters. This may be a lunar colony set up by scientists who'd given up on the blighted and fractious Earth, but that doesn't mean it's all sparkly clean and antiseptic. Outside the shelter the walls may be laboratory white, but inside are people who have abandoned hope, milling past puddles of urine and fighting for the gruel ladled into their hands.

It's not a good option for the more or less middle-class family, so Phaet sacrifices the career as a genetic researcher she's been grooming herself for and raises her hand to swear allegiance to the colony's military.

What follows takes from the boot camp of Starship Troopers, the machinations of Ender's Game and The Hunger Games, adds some resonant cultural and biotech bits from Chang-rae Lee's thoughtful On Such a Full Sea, and the medical sensibility of Samuel Butler's Erewhon (notes). Interestingly, it's all inspired by the stories that the author's grandfather has told her about living during the cultural revolution in China.

Thirty years before, when the Earth's remaining superpowers attacked the lunar colony, the Committee declared emergency rule, and they've been too busy to hold elections ever since. For two generations the colony has seen the inevitable slide into a totalitarian state, the scientific committee watching everyone through their implanted hand screens, displays literally fused to the back of everyone's hands. The peace is kept by the militia, who stands ready to fight the Earth forces if they come back, but with no one to answer to but the permanently elected committee, the militia has become a haven for people who were predisposed to cruelty, and the crucible in which others are turned towards it.

And it's Phaet's only chance at keeping her family safe.

So, at fifteen, two years younger than the normal enlistment age, she signs on for a two-year stint and heads off to the colony's equivalent of boot camp. When she gets there, she finds herself in the same group as the redheaded boy who she first met as a medic taking her mother away, and then again in the shelter culling infected people from the crowd. In fact, it was the latter encounter that put the idea of the militia in her head, when the boy, Wes, told her that she'd be safe from running into him again since he was entering the militia.

The lunar troops don't seem to be pushed nearly as hard as we've come to expect, with the exception of Wes and Phaet, but both their motivations come from within. For Phaet it's the survival of her family, sinking deeper into debt every chapter, while Wes is equally driven, but towards goals he keeps to himself. Despite their competition, Wes works with Phaet in off hours training her to be as lethal as he is. Despite his having transferred from the medical service, he's already far ahead of the rest of the recruits in learning military skills.

Phaet finds herself hardening in more ways than just muscle mass, and wonders how much of herself she's given up for the cause. Worse, her family and friends aren't sure who she is anymore, and when her mother gets out of medical she's afraid of the soldier her daughter has become. Inevitably Phaet finds herself drawn to Wes, and growing further from Umbriel, the friend and confidant that's been her presumed mate since childhood.

As Phaet rises in the military, her world outside it falls. Her mother now has to face trial for treason, and the family's best hope is that bribery will be able to keep her from punishment, or worse. Nobody admits too it, but everyone knows it's done.

The military, faced with the inconvenience of Phaet's outstanding capabilities, sends her on a mission away from the colony while her mother's trial is going on, forcing her to decide where her loyalties lie and what sacrifices she's willing to make for family and for state.

Science-wise, the book scores some hits and misses. Like the protagonist, the author is a young proto-bio-scientist herself, so the genetic parts are pretty well done, as are some notions about the difficulties of maintaining a closed lunar ecosystem, but the physics may cause some head shaking for the introduction of simulation of Earth's gravity by using diamagnetism -- using extremely strong magnetic fields to repel the water molecules in your body (notes). On the one hand, this seems pretty implausible given the needed field strengths and the effect it would have on ferromagnetic (iron, cobalt, etc) and paramagnetic materials (magnesium, molybdenum, lithium, and others), but on the other hand Bao get's props for making me (and hopefully others) look up the physics behind it. she also deserves credit for pointing the dangers of prolonged low gee environments, and for not just waving a wand to invoke magical grav plates. So there's that.

All in all, Karen Bau is to be lauded for a strong first effort in a series that looks to be set up as a trilogy visiting the different major cultures laid out in Dove Arising.

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